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OBSESSION : Martin Scorsese Eats, Sleeps, Breathes and Dreams Movies, Shot by Shot

September 23, 1990|T. J. ENGLISH | T. J. English is the author of "The Westies: Inside the Hell's Kitchen Irish Mob," published this year by G. P. Putnam

AN INABILITY TO FACE his anxieties and fears is not a trait people usually associate with Scorsese. Behind his edgy New York persona is a scaldingly honest penchant for self-appraisal, one that permeates his work. When "Mean Streets" came out, Pauline Kael called it a "triumph of personal filmmaking." Even "New York, New York," which started out as a harmless showbiz musical, became a tortured elegy on the impossibility of mixing marriage and career--a dominant theme in Scorsese's life at the time. In "Raging Bull," "The Last Temptation of Christ" and even the "Life Lessons" segment of "New York Stories," his internal struggles--with his own destructive tendencies, his spiritual doubts or his insecurities--are right up there on the screen.

Using his work as a kind of personal psychotherapy often leaves him emotionally delicate, which takes its toll on his non-professional life. A well-trained Catholic, he has a large capacity for guilt and suffering. When his three-year marriage to model-actress Isabella Rossellini fell apart in the early 1980s, Scorsese told film critic Roger Ebert that not only was he unable to look at ads or movies that featured Rossellini because "it was just too painful," but he was also unable to watch movies starring Nastassia Kinski because of her resemblance to Rossellini.

Although there have been periods of "excess" in his social life, Scorsese's alliances are now largely restricted to a small circle of close friends. His third and current wife, Barbara DeFina, produced "The Last Temptation of Christ" and was executive producer on "GoodFellas," and many of his friendships are inextricably connected to his work.

Harvey Keitel, a kindred soul who has appeared in five of Scorsese's movies, once described their relationship as "like walking into a room . . . and looking into a woman's eyes. She looks back, and for whatever reasons, you both know it's something special." At times, Keitel and others have been willing to take sizable salary deferments when working with Scorsese in an effort to keep budgets down and get his movies made.

In "GoodFellas," Scorsese may not plumb the depths of his psyche, but there is still that personal connection. As with much of his work, he says his affinity for the material stemmed from childhood memories. He remembers the "good fellas," or Mafiosi, in Little Italy as princely figures, with the best cars, the best clothes and the most glamorous women. His movie dotes on the accouterments of the gangster's life in extravagant detail.

But if you expect a romanticization of the lifestyle in the manner of the "Godfather" movies, you've got the wrong director. The point of "GoodFellas" seems to be that the attractions of gangsterism are illusory. "Ultimately," Scorsese states flatly, "the lifestyle leads to disintegration and death. It just does."

With a large cast, the acting in "GoodFellas" is of the ensemble variety, which at times creates the feeling of an epic home movie. Even De Niro, who gets top billing, does not dominate. Nor does Ray Liotta, whose character serves as the focus for the action.

One scene involves a memorable moment by De Niro, who plays Jimmy Conway, the only Irish gangster in a group of Italians. Conway's gang has recently pulled off a lucrative heist, and in order to keep from getting caught, Conway has been systematically eliminating his fellow gang members. While standing in a bar, drink in hand, the camera tracks toward De Niro-Conway while the voice-over narration tells us of Jimmy's mounting paranoia. The camera lingers on De Niro's face, and we see him come to the realization that another of his associates must be killed.

It is a subtle, powerful actor's moment, the kind many viewers have come to expect from De Niro and Scorsese. Scorsese is cagey about his relationship with the actor, saying only that what happens between a director and any actor is private. In any event, "GoodFellas," he cautions, given its ensemble nature, is not a "major collaboration" between the two.

One aspect of "GoodFellas" that may surprise people who have come to know and appreciate Scorsese's work is the film's absence of spirituality. Many of his past movies have been populated by characters best understood in a religious context. In "GoodFellas," the characters have no comprehension of the spiritual hell in which they are trapped. There is no internal struggle. The inevitable result of this spiritual alienation is violence.

"It's about pursuing the American Dream," says Scorsese, with a shrug. "And what happens when things don't turn out like you planned."

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